WASHINGTON, D.C — Echoing Pope Francis’s plea that the Church not become an NGO, Bishop Eusebio Elizondo kicked off the 2018 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering by urging those in attendance not to see themselves as social workers, but instead as “Catholic witnesses of Jesus’ love.”

“We are not socialists. We are not communists. We are trying to discover every single human being as a brother or sister in Jesus Christ,” Elizondo said during his keynote address on Saturday in Washington.

The Catholic Social Ministry Gathering is an annual conference organized by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Department of Justice, Peace, and Human Development. The four-day event includes workshops on Catholic social teaching, followed by in-person lobbying on Capitol Hill on behalf of Catholic legislative priorities.

Elizondo, who was born in Mexico and is an auxiliary bishop in Seattle, centered his talk on immigration by considering the question “Where is your brother?” He spoke at a time when the U.S. bishops have made finding a solution for DACA, a program for undocumented migrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors, their top legislative goal.

Beginning his talk with a reflection on the Declaration of Independence, he said it was incumbent on those in attendance to go out and proclaim that “every single person has an inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Immigrants “are looking for life,” Elizondo insisted.

Elizondo lamented the number of Christians who sleep through Church, literally and metaphorically, and fail to embrace the heart of the Christian message. “We don’t need more numbers in the Church. We need disciples,” he said to thunderous applause.

He then offered an hour-long tour through the Church’s social encyclicals — linking together Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 Rerum Novarum to Benedict XVI’s 2009 Caritas in Veritate to Pope Francis’s 2015 Laudato si’.

Citing Benedict XVI’s reminder that “every migrant is a human person,” Elizondo said “that’s all we need,” as he tied Benedict’s words to his opening reflection on the Declaration of Independence that all persons are possessed with inalienable rights.

“What a revelation,” he said.

The whole discussion of immigration changes, Elizondo argued, when a human face is put on the debate. He then made an explicit connection to debates over abortion, where he decried the fact that so many people say “we don’t want to see the baby” and then discard it before confronting the realities of the situation.

The legality of abortion, he said, serves as a reminder that just because something is legal, it does not therefore make it just. The inverse, he said, is also true, and there are times when laws over immigration are broken for reasons that are justifiable.

“Jesus was very much a law-abiding person,” said Elizondo, but “[Jesus] broke the law so many times because of charity.”

For Elizondo, the practical application of the gospel commandments begins with changing civil laws and recognizing that for Christians, “charity for us is the ultimate law.” Today’s immigration debates, according to Elizondo, are defined by “too many legalities, too little charity.”

While adding a caveat that “every country has a right to craft their own laws, absolutely,” he said that “countries, however, were created by human beings. Ethnic backgrounds or race are God’s creation, but countries are our creation.”

“Human laws are all the time to be improved,” said Elizondo, once more making a connection to the spectrum of life issues that Catholics are called to address. “We have to put a face on the innocent ones: in the womb, or little children coming to our borders…civil laws are to be perfected,” he said.

Perfecting those civil laws — in a spirit of charity and love — were the marching orders he concluded with for the more than 500 individuals gathered in Washington from over 100 dioceses and 45 states for the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering.

“The more you love, the more you will be obliged,” he said. “Let us go out and be missionaries of that love.”

Stay tuned for Crux’s latest news and updates from the 2018 Catholic Social Ministry Gathering, where Crux’s national correspondent Christopher White will be providing regular updates. Follow him on Twitter @CWWhite212 and visit Crux for daily updates and interviews from Washington, D.C.